With all the recent action in Northeast — the opening of Amici Pizza, the continued prosperity of the Northeast Social Club, the constant comforting innovation of the Modern Cafe, the insurgent bravado of El Taco Riendo, the skillfully authentic Chimborazo, the locavore-meets-Thai charm Sen Yai Sen Lek — it’s no surprise that a middle-aged trooper like The Sample Room might feel a little neglected.
The then-newly opened Sample Room was hailed in 2002 by Jeremy Iggers of the Star Tribune as a bold proponent of nobrow dining — “a subversive mishmash that defies all the old categories.”
But eight trips around the sun can be a long time in restaurant years; even under the best of circumstances, a restaurant is blessed if it can outlive a housecat, and truly fortunate to outlast a sturdy budgie. Thus a recent reboot, with plenty of new items and separate lunch and dinner menus. (There’s lots of overlap between the menus, but lunch does have a wider selection of sandwiches and a two-out-of-three soup / salad / sandwich combo.)
There’s much to like about the small, hearty plates of The Sample Room (both in their classic and reinvented forms), so let’s quickly dispense with the bad and savor the happy details. The $14 charcuterie plate, one of the cornerstones of the restaurant’s reinvention, would better be described as a charcuterie heap or charcuterie pile; pieces of meat product and accenting apricot mostarda were stacked more or less on top of each other.
Although the smoked blue cheese pate was pleasantly sweet and balanced, the chicken galantine and head cheese tasted similar to one another, and lackluster to boot, with a tendency toward an overly chewy texture. A slice of pork belly was tasty, but resilient to the point of being tough to eat. Most of my table’s plate went back to the kitchen. (Here, the restaurant really suffers from a direct comparison to The Craftsman, which bangs out a similarly priced charcuterie plate that is roughly double the quality and value.)
Charcuterie aside, a broad sampling of menu offerings turned up winner after winner. Manilla Clams with Grain Belt beer and garlic ($6.25) seemed like a gamble, but they paid off with a jackpot of sweet, subtle flavor and tender texture. Good shellfish can be hard to find in this state of rivers and lakes, but The Sample Room nails it twice in one menu — seared diver scallops with nettle puree ($8) were also excellent, the scallops cooked properly and the puree delicious enough to mop up with bread. (Note: The menu now lists Seared Sea Scallops with Dandelion Coulis, but it seems likely to be equally good.)
A Caesar salad is a mainstay of, well, just about everywhere, and they’re easy to screw up — cheap parmesan, lackluster dressing, and AWOL anchovies can spell death by boredom. The Sample Room version ($7) boasted rich, creamy dressing, zesty but balanced fish flavor, and a true sense of harmony.
Similarly, a roasted fresh veggie torte ($6) was a deftly crafted delight, with a tasty buttery crust and a skillful compromise between the vegetal snap of fresh produce and the soothing texture and flavor provided by a good roast. Red pepper sour cream tied the whole packaged together with a decorative bow.
There’s not really much to say about the menu’s fresh fettuccine with wild mushrooms and asparagus ($9) other than “huzzah!”; the pasta was delicate and toothsome, the mushrooms soulful and earthy, the asparagus correctly cooked.
Dessert was no less enjoyable. A chocolate flan cake ($6) was exceedingly moist, pleasingly sticky and not too sweet, both indulgent and restrained. And a strawberry shortcake ($4) utilized rich real whipped cream and cleverly used balsamic vinegar to lend an exciting hit of tangy flavor.
Over the course of its lifetime The Sample Room has gone from edgy and young to comfortable and familiar, ambiguous traits that can either be the key to a restaurant’s long-term prosperity or the precursors to a slide into irrelevance and extinction. Happily, the comfort offered up at the moodily chic eatery doesn’t seem to be a sign of dulled edge — its recent reinvention shows ambition and skill, not complacency and compromise.
BEST BET: Any of the small tastes of seafood on the menu are a real treat; carefully and simply executed, and a good value.
The Sample Room
Nobrow small plates in Northeast Minneapolis
2124 Marshall St NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418
CHEFS: Executive Chef Matt Paulson and Sous Chef Adam Beal
Sun-Thu 11:30am-10pm (kitchen) 1am (bar)
Sat-Sun Brunch 10:30am-3pm
Sat-Sun 3pm-midnight (kitchen) 1am (bar)
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $9-19